Curtis fights poverty with laughs

Scribe to produce Comic Relief telethon

LONDON — In its selfish moments, the British film industry might wish that billion-dollar screenwriter Richard Curtis would spend more of his time making blockbuster movies, and less on his extra-curricular activities.

But it’s hard to complain when he takes six months off every two years to produce the biannual telethon for Comic Relief, the hugely successful charity he co-founded in 1985. That’s just a bit higher on the cosmic scale of importance than thinking up amusing new ways for Hugh Grant to get the girl.

This year Curtis is taking on an ever-bigger challenge. Comic Relief is among dozens of organizations that have allied themselves in a campaign to achieve nothing less than an end to global poverty.

Curtis is one of the key creative advisors to the movement, which marches under the banner “MakePovertyHistory” in Britain, “The One Campaign” in America and various other monikers around the world (in Italy, it’s “No Excuses”).

Its goal is whip up public pressure upon next July’s G8 summit in Scotland, attended by the leaders of the world’s eight largest industrial nations, to agree a radical three-legged program, described by Curtis as “the magic cocktail of aid, debt and trade.”

That means cancelling Third World debt, doubling the aid budget and rewriting global trade laws so that developing nations can protect their economies.

Important stuff, to be sure, but not exactly sexy. And that’s where Curtis comes in, along with other showbiz types such as Bono and Bob Geldof, spearhead of Band Aid. Curtis will spend the next months bending every fiber of his talent to raise the issue in the public consciousness.

“I’m involved in a campaign, the center of which is a financial conference with a name so dull most people would think it was a vegetable drink,” Curtis admits.

To remedy that, he has written a BBC TV movie, “The Girl in the Cafe,” which David Yates (“State of Play”) will direct before he moves onto the fifth “Harry Potter.” Bill Nighy, fresh from his showstopping turn in the Curtis pic “Love Actually,” will star as a civil servant who starts an awkward romance with the eponymous girl in the run-up to the G8 conference.

“It’s an idea that I had waiting from quite a few years ago, about a nervous man who nervously invites a girl to somewhere very important, only for her to behave in a very different way than he expects. I had it in mind as an ‘Erin Brockovich’ type film about an awkward person causing a fuss,” Curtis explains.

Curtis has also written two special episodes — his first for five years — of the top-rating BBC sitcom “The Vicar of Dibley,” which he originally created.

Geldof, having rerecorded the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” is making a BBC TV series about Africa. Helmer Jonathan Glazer is directing a series of ads in which Ben Kingsley reprises his gangster character from Glazer’s movie “Sexy Beast,” interrupting well-known commercials from other companies and ordering people to buy the Band Aid single. Many more showbiz initiatives will launch in the New Year.

But it’s going to be a tough sell at a time when, as Curtis observes, “we’ve seen the political will move towards trying to find peace through war rather than peace through the alleviation of poverty.” But Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is hosting the G8 conference, has promised to put development at the top of the agenda.

Curtis says it’s a matter of holding the world’s leaders to a promise they made in 2000, when the United Nations agreed its Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty by 2015. “If you make a promise, you should be held to that promise, and 2005 is a crunch year, when if the world doesn’t take these goals seriously, it will abandon them.”

Curtis usually devotes himself exclusively to Comic Relief from October until March every other year. In 2005, this period of purdah will be stretched to July. Only then will he think about making movies again. “I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do after July,” he says.

And why should he? Saving the world is quite enough to think about, without having to worry about the more difficult job of saving the British film industry.

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